In Conversation with Slavs and Tatars - The Courtauld Institute of Art

In Conversation with Slavs and Tatars

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Bella Radenović and Chelsea Pierce // In Conversation with Slavs and Tatars


Slavs and Tatars is an internationally renowned art collective devoted to an area east of the former Berlin Wall and west of the Great Wall of China known as Eurasia. Their work has been the subject of solo exhibitions at the Museum of Modern Art, New York; Salt, Istanbul; Vienna Secession; Kunsthalle, Zurich; Albertinum, Dresden; and Ujazdowski Centre for Contemporary Art, Warsaw, among others. The collective’s practice is based on three activities: exhibitions, publications and lecture-performances. In addition to their translation of the legendary Azerbaijani satirical periodical Molla Nasreddin (currently in its second edition with I.B Tauris), Slavs and Tatars have published more than ten books to date, most recently Wripped Scripped (Hatje Cantz, 2018) on the politics of alphabets and transliteration.


Fig. 1: Slavs and Tatars, Kitab Kebab (Alkaline Adab), 2015, books, metal skewered, ca. 26 × 57 × 29 cm.


Bella Radenović: Slavs and Tatars were set up as a book club in 2006, the year of important political events in the Middle East and the Balkans, such as the escalation of the still unresolved conflict in the Gaza strip, the July Lebanon war, the execution of Saddam Hussein and the declaration of Montenegro’s independence. What has changed between then and now?

About three years ago we had a self-induced midlife crisis – it had been ten years of Slavs and Tatars. Unlike other artists and collectives Slavs and Tatars were created in response to a given moment in Eastern Europe and the Caucasus. The world had changed so dramatically since 2006 that we felt it was necessary to recalibrate and re-align ourselves and understand what we had done in the past ten years in regard to our work. In 2006 there was an inexorable march towards liberal democracy imposed onto certain Eastern European states. We were three years into the Iraq war.


Chelsea Pierce: Can Slavs and Tatars speak about working as a collective and about their many roles as artists, editors, researchers and more recently curators and facilitators of an artist residency?

Being a collective, we do not exist in terms of individual artists, we never did. This is not the subject matter of our collective, but it is our modus operandi. We are not interested in subjectivity, personality, and biography. Despite that, there is a systemic individualism at play in the art world which focuses on those biographies – even though we do not use our names, birthdates, places of birth, where we studied. At the end of the day people want your presence and your contribution. We found this fixation on the individual a bit oppressive. In fact, Slavs and Tatars is not even a name, it is more of a mission statement rather than a group or band name. The walls and geographic boundaries are there and it does not matter who is doing it. We felt it was important to reclaim Slavs and Tatars as a platform, away from being simply an artist collective. We did not set out to be artists – we had to reclaim our original goals for the collective.

It is important to give context to the socio-economic side of the intellectual and conceptual questions. We are privileged enough to have more requests, commissions, and budgets than we can handle. If you get to this position in your career, as artists we believe it is our responsibility not to do bigger works, with more precious materials, but rather to expand the field of investigation into those things we are interested in, open it up to others. For market reasons, the actual pieces must be made by the core members of the collective. We are not dealing with the subject matter of authorship in our work, so it is not relevant to address it; everything else like reading, research, writing, and lectures, which is sixty percent of our practice, can be done by invited guests.

The residency sprung from this line of thought, as we began receiving more requests in a span of six months from within our region to show our work in Minsk, Yerevan, and Baku. We were thrilled because there is not really such a robust arts infrastructure in these places. But as much as we want to exhibit in our region, it does not strike us as the most effective expenditure of budgets. So, with the Goethe-Institut in Minsk, we thought: why not take a part of this budget and do something more sustainable and launch a residency-mentorship program for people from our regions? It is not just for artists, but also curators, managers etc.; every single position that you need to create a successful art ecosystem. Unlike most residencies, our focus is on mentorship. Residents spend three days a week with us, working on our projects and dealing with these socio-economic, brass tacks, and ‘unsexy’ aspects of the profession which are crucial to building a sustainable practice and not burning out by the age of thirty. What kind of relationship to have with a gallery, how to negotiate deals, how to read through contracts. The intellectual stuff happens anyway, but it is important to have other types of fluency – financial, administrative, etc. – in order to function as a member of this cultural community.

In parallel to the residency we curated the Ljubljana Biennial for Graphic Arts in 2019. These are all essentially efforts to shift the spotlight away from us and give the stage to others while continuing to invest in the lines of enquiry we were interested in beforehand.


Fig. 2: Slavs and Tatars, Molla Nasreddin the antimodern, 2012, fibreglass, lacquer paint, steel, 180 × 180 × 80 cm. Installation view at Yinchuan Biennale, 2016.


BR: For the cover of immediations, Slavs and Tatars designed a version of the Kitab Kebab, which relates to one your most recognisable series of works. This was such a great choice for an academic journal in relation to your description of the skewer of printed books as a ‘mashed-up reading list [that] proposes a lateral or transversal approach to knowledge’. A lowbrow object and symbol of Eurasian hospitality, the skewer punctures books of learned linguists in a visceral act of knowledge destruction, whilst simultaneously binding them together. How does this work speak to Slavs and Tatars’ approaches to their sources and reflect their attitudes towards different forms of knowledge?

As you said, it is a very visceral project for us, and it is our own books that we are skewering, so actually we do not have access to them afterwards. I have not thought of the skewer as being lowbrow before, but, of course, in our work we often think about how to mix high and low culture. This disrespect is part of an Enlightenment/anti-Enlightenment tradition. One of the reasons why Slavs and Tatars were founded was not only to highlight certain things about our region that are lost, but to challenge this Enlightenment idea that knowledge is always analytical and that there is only one organ of knowledge, i.e. the brain. So, the Kitab Kebab challenges this assumption very well in talking about digestive knowledge, for example, and the knowledge of other organs. Increasingly, western-trained medical professionals, neurosurgeons in particular, are asked to study the gastro-intestinal system as well. Of course, if you adhere to Ayurvedic or other eastern systems of medicine, you know that the stomach is an equally savvy, intelligent organ as the brain. But as an Enlightenment legacy, we have not studied the stomach for 500 years like the brain; it just has not been as much of a focus. That is one aspect of what this work represents for us and it is the closest thing we have to a signature piece.

Without couching it in excessively romantic terms, this disrespect is really the more magical, alchemical part of the work. After our research, we have to ask ourselves what we bring to the table that journalists, academics and activists do not address. The last piece of the puzzle is the art, and the disrespect comes through in a way to break our sources or enter through the backdoor, approaching from behind. First, you have to approach it from the front; you must know your source very well.

Returning to the Enlightenment idea, you have this sense that to study something, one must do so at a distance, you use gloves, it is hygienic. But what happens if we study things in a very clammy, intimate, sweaty, ‘bear hug’ sort of way? Why can I not be close to the thing I am studying? I am not a scientist, or a politician, or a journalist who has to claim objectivity, so why not actually reclaim the agency I have that incorporates other forms of knowledge – the affective knowledge, emotional knowledge, digestive knowledge, esoteric or metaphysical knowledge. These are things that cannot be hygienically or clinically isolated.


CP: Looking closely at the books you chose to skewer, among them is Dictionary of Untranslatables (2014) and Luis d’Antin van Rooten’s Mots d’Heures (1967), a collection of English nursery rhymes translated from English to French homophonically, with no attempt to preserve the original meaning. The second book in particular raises the issue of transliteration, which you have once described as a failure of written language to convey spoken language. There always seems to be a degree of abstraction in any translation and the same could be said of an artwork and the ideas it could represent. How do Slavs and Tatars deal with this slippage or failure of language?

Most of the art produced in the last fifty years or so is looking at the failures of certain projects or shortcomings, providing non-positivist readings of certain situations. It was Beatrix Ruf, the curator of our Kunsthalle Zurich show in 2014, who said that our work is quite singular in the sense that it is actually quite hopeful – I do not want to say positivist – but it is actually assuming that translation can happen. And we use translation a lot. We produce work in an astounding number of languages, especially compared to artists who engage in text-based work. We have text-based works in Georgian, Russian, English, French, Polish, Turkish and Persian to name a few. Our work shows our belief in translation. In looking at the major art movements of the early twentieth century, such as Russian Constructivism or Bauhaus, they all had a belief in art as a solution for something. You do not normally find the idea that art has a role to play in aesthetic or formalist practices today. That does not mean that art has to be useful, but going back to the idea of respecting and disrespecting criticism, it is very easy to level a critique at something, but what is very difficult is to criticize something and at the same time elevate it. It goes against this binary of the Enlightenment era thinking. How do I stab something in the back at the same time as raising it up? It is a counterintuitive thing, but you can actually do both.

This does not answer your question – it addresses non-slippages rather than slippages – but the slippages are essentially linked to other things you have pointed to like humour. How can we break or disrespect these sources?  Well, one way is to ask very, very stupid questions. Most people working in cultural fields, whether it is art, cinema or poetry, are all too interested in showing that they are smart. It is a partisan culture war and it takes a certain amount of confidence to show yourself to be stupid. In contrast, with Molla Nasreddin, who has become a sort of retroactive mascot for us, you have this idea of a wise fool. Mike Kelley said that artists should be willing to be fools and jesters and not these self-serious people. Our work is daring people to take us as being superficial. And the thing is if you do that, you risk succeeding: some people will take you as superficial. Our early works, such as Men are from Murmansk, Women are from Vilnius, are really stupid, but there is some depth behind that stupidity. It was not just thrown out there, it was not a fortune cookie. There was actually thought behind the relationship between the Baltics and Russia, between the idea of the sexism and mail-order brides in the European Union – all that stuff is compressed in one really seemingly stupid slogan. So that slippage is really a form of foolishness in some sense, hopefully a wise and educated foolishness.


Fig. 3: Slavs and Tatars, Mother Tongues and Father Throats, 2012, woollen yarn, ca. 500 × 300 cm. Installation view at Pejman Foundation, Tehran, 2017. Photo courtesy of Hamid Eskandari


CP: In a recent online studio visit organized by the Hurford Center for the Arts, you spoke about Molla Nasreddin as a wise fool, about accepting the fact that there are not always clear-cut answers for everything – recalling the challenge of analytical knowledge discussed earlier. I was struck by the resemblance of these ideas to kōans used in Zen Buddhism, having recently looked at the connection between Zen Buddhism and artists in the 1960s in my own research. Kōans are sentiments or stories that mean nothing but could also mean anything. It is a slippage of direct communication and at the same time they are not about communicating in a direct way. Often you can only understand their meaning by acting through it or gaining experiential knowledge. Do these ideas relate to your thinking about the idea of the wise fool?

Absolutely. For us, one of the definitions of sophistication is the ability to hold contradictory ideas at the same time, acrobatics one finds often in certain religious movements. Christians have it in the idea of coincidentia oppositorum (unity of opposites), that the only way to express God or the transcendent is through irrationalism, not through logic but illogic. The Sufis had it as well with these apocryphal phrases that collapse on themselves. Abu Bakr famously said that the highest level of perception is apperception. You have these ideas that trip on themselves. My favourite one is from the Catholic monk Thomas Merton. He was a really interesting guy who was a best-selling author in the 1950s and was the first person to introduce Zen Buddhism and Sufism to the Catholic Church in the monastery where he taught, the Abbey of Gethsemani in Kentucky. He had a beautiful quote that read: ‘Quit this world, quit the next, and quit quitting’. Even the most liberating ideology will eventually become your own prison, and at some point, you have to break that ideology and start from scratch. It is the hardest thing to do, especially as an artist you work so hard to get to a point where people understand what you are doing and that is the point where you have to stop doing that. At least in the work that we are doing, it is a way of being imperceptible to yourself and hiding from oneself. And to answer your question, that moment in the 1960s and 1970s when Zen Buddhism was cool with hippies and artists, was also the same time when Islam was also kind of cool. That is why Philippa de Menil, the co-founder of the Dia Art Foundation and daughter of Franco-American art collectors and philanthropists Dominique and John de Menil, converted to Islam in the late 1970s, at the time when all those California liberals were experimenting with Islam. It is quaint, but it is also a bit sad to imagine how far away we are from this today. Can you imagine a leading art philanthropist and socialite in New York converting to Islam? It just would not happen.


BR: In your book Friendship of Nations: Polish Shi’ite Showbiz (2013) you ‘chart the improbable rapport’ between Iran’s revolution and the collapse of communism in Poland. In the introduction you speak of ‘pledging your heart and mind to several places until the desire to identify with one or the other collapses’. In an era dominated by right-wing populists and ethno-nationalists who weaponise faith, how does your work engage with and challenge identity politics based on religion, race, gender and ethnicity, and reveal the fluidity of boundaries and identities?

As you mentioned, identity politics is tough. First of all, I should say that there is a shared approach towards identity in our collective, namely that the best way to approach a question of identity is never through a straight line. To take myself as an example, I am Iranian American, I was born in the United States, I was raised with a certain idea of what being Iranian meant in the diaspora, and I found it not at all interesting. I was not ashamed of it; I just was not intellectually interested in it. It was only through my intellectual interests in Russia and my time in Russia that I was able to understand Iran, and that was through the perspective of the Russian Revolution. The Iranian Revolution (1978–1979) is considered to be the second most important revolution of the twentieth century after the October Revolution in 1917. In the same way that the events of 1917 defined the twentieth century, Iran’s revolution has defined the last forty years in terms of the rise of political Islam, which we are still seeing in some sense. That is an example of this kind of triangulation or circuitousness. Identity can never be approached in a direct, confrontational, unilateral, linear fashion. That is where it becomes interesting.

Secondly, in terms of accumulations of identity, we are not ones to discount the importance of nationhood or patriotism. In fact, instead of acting like we belong nowhere, we act like we belong everywhere. I can only speak for myself in this case. If I look at the three countries I am affectively interested in, which are Russia, Iran, and the United States, these are all countries that are all either current, past, or present enemies, if not all three. It is only by resolving or not resolving those conflicts – Cold War conflicts and Iran-American relations – it is only by really living with those contradictions that I believe you can overcome those reductive notions of identity politics.

We feel that there is a certain populism in our work, but not in a bad way. Perhaps it is a left populism, at least in an etymological sense of the word populaire. Sometimes, our galleries complain that our work is so complicated or remote, that you have to read so much and that it is obtuse. Yet, at the same time, we are often called upon by institutions to bring in audiences that they have not had before, we bring in audiences not typical to the art milieu. Your member of a typical art audience who goes to a Walter De Maria exhibition knows the history of minimalism and how it led to Land Art. We instead are privileging our regional knowledge more than our art historical knowledge. So that the Turk who understands the role of orality in Islam or the cultural associations of kefir, is more privileged than the art-historically articulate person for whom kefir is a recent fad. That is what I mean by populism, and it is not about dumbing down. One of the challenges as you get older as a human being and artist is this idea of refinement. Your preferences and your interests lead you to a narrower sphere of activities. The challenge is how to broaden as you age and not shy away from taking the risk. As an artist the challenge is to make your language sharper, not sharp in terms of narrowing your audience but in terms of trying to create a wider field.


CP: Since your work is so regionally focused, a New Yorker encountering Pavement Prose: Język lata jak łopata, illustrated on the back cover of this issue, might not find it as recognizable as a local visitor to Raster Gallery in Warsaw. Pavement Prose references the Society of Rascals [Towarzystwo Szubrawców], the nineteenth-century literary group from Vilnius, who used the shovel, a symbol of the working class, in their subversive logo with a noblewoman riding it like a witch to deride the gentry. On the one hand, the work alludes to certain cultural cues that are more familiar to some groups of people and on the other hand, humour and satire can be a way to reach many different people across cultures and languages. Can Slavs and Tatars speak about the role of humour and satire in their work, and about the origins behind Pavement Prose and its relationship to your most recent research cycle, Pickle Politics?

The show at Raster Gallery was great for us in that it really hit all our sweet spots. It highlighted a phenomenon in the country which even educated people were not aware of. The Poles are a very literary people, but these figures have somehow been forgotten. On the one hand, the Society of Rascals is very esoteric, yet it was presented through a series of lowbrow things including the brine of the pickle-juice, the kind of stuff you associate with grandmothers, folklore, rustic dachas and summertime.

In Poland, Adam Mickiewicz is a figure of obsession; he established this idea of a singular Polish national identity and advocated for Polish independence. In the same way that you can draw a line between René Descartes and genetically modified crops, you can draw a line between Mickiewicz and the rise of Polish nationalism today. He was a Romantic poet who fought for Polish independence and national identity during a period when Poland did not exist on the map – at the time Poland was carved up by Russia, Prussia and the Austro-Hungarian Empires. Mickiewicz was a Pole from Vilnius, from the colonial spots of Poland, and yet he believed in Polish identity as a singular one, which is a sad thing. One of the beautiful things about Poland historically was that it was a place where Polishness could bleed into Lithuanianness, Jewishness, Ukrainianness, and Tatarness. The Society of Rascals were a counter to Mickiewicz’s ideas. They were rabble-rousers and provocateurs. One of the most interesting figures of the society was Józef Sękowski, whom we encountered through our research into Russian Orientalism. A leading expert of nineteenth-century Russian Orientalism, he spoke Arabic, Persian, Turkish and Hebrew, and was one of the leading editors and commissioners of the Russian publishing scene. This led to him being considered a traitor by his fellow countrymen who were partisan to the core.

The idea for the first pop-up Pickle Bar came out of this. We love exploring something as pedestrian as pickling as one can unravel so many interesting things from it, and we see pickling as no less of a challenge to the Enlightenment than its intellectual critiques. If you look into traditional Slavic practice of pickling with salt rather than vinegar, you will see that it is preservation through a managed form of rotting. That in itself takes certain mental acrobatics as it is rather counter-intuitive. Fermenting is activating, but it is also souring, which carries a negative connotation of something rotting, for example, in terms of a political and social contract. This cycle was in some sense a reaction to rising populism. The poster we made for it titled Pickle Tits shows pickles as breasts and suggests that the relationship between the state and its constituents, with the former entrusted with duty of care for its citizens, has soured, with fresh milk transforming into kefir.


Fig. 4: Slavs and Tatars, ‘Towarzystwo Szubrawców’, 2016. Installation view at Raster Gallery, Warsaw, 2016.


Fig. 5: Slavs and Tatars, Pickle Tits, 2018, offset print on paper, 70 × 50 cm. Installation view at Westfälischer Kunstverein, Münster. Photo courtesy of Thorsten Arendt


BR: Humour and satire provide a fun way to engage with your material both for you as a collective and your audiences, but they could also serve as a defence mechanism. I wonder if it is thanks to the use of humour that you have been able to exhibit so widely without raising a few eyebrows or affronting your audiences. In addition to museums and galleries across Europe, your work has been shown in the United Arab Emirates (2011), MoMA in New York (2012), and Istanbul (2014). Considering the polemical nature of your work, it is an astonishing feat since many of these places have sensitivities about ideas and figures explored in your work. Have you found yourself in any sticky situations when exhibiting in the countries covered by your wide geographic sweep? Could you talk about the reception of your work and audience participation in these places?

The example of the tenth Sharjah Biennial in the UAE where we exhibited Friendship of Nations in 2011 is an interesting one. The opening was on the same day as when the Emirates and Saudi Arabia sent troops into Bahrain, a majority-Shia country. Our project was called Polish Shi’ite Showbiz and it was using the language of two civil movements, the Iranian Revolution and Poland’s Solidarność, in a country that was quelling certain uprisings of the Arab Spring. It could not be more sensitive. We were right next to a Shia mosque and to the left of us was an installation by Mustapha Benfodil, which was censored and for which the Biennial director, Jack Persekian, was fired. It was a controversial and cursed exhibition, but our project never raised an uproar.

And we are rather proud of this fact: that we have never had an enraged response to our work. One reason perhaps relates to what you mentioned about humour. Another reason is that we started as a book club and there is no hierarchy in a book club, so when people come see the work, they understand we are not speaking from a position of power. The kind of political work we are used to seeing is from a position of speaking at the audience instead of with the audience. If you look at our very name, Slavs and Tatars, it refers to such a vast region that there is no way we could be specialists. The book club ethos of being open-ended, welcoming, hospitable and humorous helps. In Sharjah, our work also did not look like art. When you came into this structure, it looked like something a local craftsman could have done. It is disarming in a sense: most art is recognizable as such by the way you light it and make it important, but we were trying not to have that. There is a certain left-wing faction in the art world that does not like us because they think we are traditionalist crypto-Muslims, and that we are engaging with ideas that are right-wing without calling them out in a partisan way.


Fig. 6: Slavs and Tatars, Alphabet Abdal, 2015, woolen yarn, 190 × 495 cm. Installation view at Albertinum, Dresden, 2018.Photo courtesy of Klemens Renner


The second part of your question relates to how people react to our work in our region. That is the most rewarding part as that is when the exchange happens best. The audience comes with a certain amount of prior knowledge already and the level of conversation is more sophisticated. In the west the engagement often stops at ‘I did not know this existed!’ and does not go further than that. We learn a lot from our audiences in places like Minsk and Yerevan. In Baku, for example, we did our lecture-performance Transliterative Tease in Russian, and instead of your hipster, twentysomething, English-speaking art world people, we had a hundred babushkas and dedushkas taking notes and waiting to tell me what I got wrong. It was the only time we really had a critique after a lecture-performance; it was such a fantastic and gratifying experience.

In our work you do not know if you are supposed to laugh at it, if it is serious, if it is a joke. Is it respectful or disrespectful? Can I sit on it or not sit on it? Is it right-wing or left-wing? Is it secular or religious? Are they making fun of religion? The more of these moments of uncertainty or ambiguity we can maintain, the stronger the work is.

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